Air travel is predicted to treble in the next two decades. To cope, we will need nearly 40 000 new commercial aircraft. But more travel means more pollution, so there’s renewed vigour in the hunt for aviation biofuel.

On a modest 50 hectares in the sleepy farmlands around Marble Hall in Limpopo, a quiet revolution in air travel is under way. That’s where a leafy plant sprouting from the red clay soil is being hailed as the answer to the challenge of creating sustainable aviation biofuel. The plant in question is Solaris, a member of the tobacco family (nicotine-free, for what it’s worth). Oil from Solaris seeds is converted into bio-jet fuel in a process developed and patented by the Italian company Sunchem Holding. What’s more, in time to come, emerging technologies are expected to exploit the leaves and stems to increase biofuel production.

With the first harvest barely in, already there’s talk of an imminent test flight. That flight is planned for this year, in collaboration with SAA. Boeing and SAA, along with partners SkyNRG and Sunchem SA, are driving the local biofuel venture, which involves both commercial and small-scale farmers. If test farming in Marble Hall is successful, the project will be expanded to more farms in South Africa – and potentially to other countries. Since aviation biofuel was approved for commercial use in 2011, airlines have conducted more than 2 000 commercial flights using it. About three types have been approved by ASTM (the American Society of the International Association for Testing and Materials) International, the worldwide standards organisation.

Demand and interest in the fuel are high, from both airlines and the military. The problem: insufficient supply. Refinery capacity remains small, the fuel comes at a price premium and currently sustainable feedstock is available in limited quantities only. “SAA continues to work towards becoming the most environmentally sustainable airline in the world and is committed to a better way of conducting business,” says Ian Cruickshank, Environmental Affairs Specialist, SAA Group. “The impact that the biofuel programme will have on South Africans is astounding: thousands of jobs mostly in rural areas, new skills and technology, energy security and stability and macro-economic benefits to South Africa and, of course, a massive reduction in the amount of CO2 that is emitted into our atmosphere.”

Boeing International’s managing director for Africa, J Miguel Santos,said it is exciting to see early progress in South Africa towards develop-ing sustainable aviation biofuel from energy-producing tobacco plants. “Boeing strongly believes that our aviation biofuel collaboration with South African Airways will benefit the environment and public health while providing new economic opportunities for South Africa’s small farmers. This project also positions our valued airline customer to gain
a long-term, viable domestic fuel supply and improve South Africa’s national balance of payments.” The project is intended to support South African Airways’ environmental goals as well as national objectives for economic and rural development. Solaris-based jet fuel will meet the Roundtable of Sustainable Biomaterial’s CO2 life cycle reduction threshold of at least 50 per cent. When produced in an optimised supply chain set-up, savings are expected to reach up to 80 per cent, compared with fossil jet fuel (

The partners in the South African venture are leaders in the field. Boeing, which describes itself as the industry leader in global efforts to develop and commercialise sustainable aviation biofuel, is involved in about 20 biofuel collaborations spanning the globe. Besides its South African connection, it is also active in the United States, Middle East, Europe, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Brazil and Australia. SkyNRG ( sees its mission as creating sustainable fuels for transport segments that have no other green alternative in the foreseeable future: aviation, marine and heavy trucking. It is the world market leader for bio-jet fuel, supplying more than 20 airlines worldwide. Maarten van Dijk, the organisation’s chief technology officer, described the Solaris project’s launch as an important milestone for his organisation. “(It) marks the start of our first operational feedstock project,” he says.

“Commitment of all partners in the supply chain is crucial to realise our joint ambition and make this project a success and that’s why we’re proud to work together with Sunchem SA, Boeing and SAA. We also want to thank the Dutch Government for its strong support in this project, and for the development in sustainable jet fuel in general.” After two years of proving Solaris’ potential in small-scale trials, it is exciting to see the parts falling into place and work in progress on the next phase of the project, adds Joost van Lier, managing director of Sunchem SA. There is a strong belief in the project’s potential as a great opportunity for both commercial and community farmers.

The final member of the collaboration, Sunchem Biofuel Development South Africa, is a joint venture between Sunchem Holding and an international group of investors/entrepreneurs, seasoned in developing alternative energy initiatives in Southern Africa. Trials with Solaris, dating back to 2013, have shown encouraging results. On the production side, the initial 11 hectares produced three tons of oil, six tons of press cake/animal feed and 45 tons of fresh biomass per hectare. Socially, they also helped forge strong ties with the commercial farming community and the regional smallholder farming co-ops.

Emissions baseline confirmed
Tough standards on new commercial aircraft CO2 emissions due to come into force from 2020 will lay down a strict do-not-exceed maximum fuel burn per flight kilometre. From 2023, this will also apply to existing aircraft designs still in manufacture. Commercial air travel’s umbrella body, the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association (IATA) has welcomed the standard for commercial aircraft, produced by representatives at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It took six years of negotiation and technical work before approval was granted by ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection.

The standard does not solve aviation’s climate challenge on its own, IATA conceded, but was nevertheless an important element in a comprehensive strategy for tackling carbon emissions. “The next milestone will be the implementation of a market-based measure to address CO2 emissions, which we hope to see agreed at the ICAO Assembly in September,” the organisation said. The industry’s goal is carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and for a halving of CO2 emissions by 2050.
The world’s other big aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, has also commended the CO2 agreement. The aim, the company said, was to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation by encouraging the integration of fuel-efficient technologies into aircraft design and development, ensuring older aircraft are replaced by newer, more efficient designs.

This is part of a broader set of actions aimed at tackling aviation’s climate change impact including improvements in flight operations, deployment of sustainable jet fuels and the reduction of noise and other emissions together with the development of a global market based measure for aviation to be agreed at the ICAO General Assembly in October 2016. Airbus pointed out that it had invested significantly in improving the environmental performance of its sites, products and services. New aircraft coming to market would offer significantly reduced CO2 emissions and even the existing A380, in service since 2007, showed a 40 per cent reduction compared with previous-generation very large aircraft.


Get set for an aviation boom
More people, in more countries, are travelling by air. But we’re on the brink of an unprecedented boom. Data provided by Boeing show that, a little more than 20 years ago, about 1,5 trillion revenue passenger kilometres (RPK) were flown. Of that, nearly three-quarters was undertaken in Europe and North America. By 2014, total RPK had soared to six trillion. What’s note-worthy is that the Europe/North America travel more or less equally combined to make up only half the total. The other half was dominated by Asia (excluding China), with China next at about one-eighth of the total. By 2034, air travel will stand at 16 trillion RPK. Europe and North America’s share of that is estimated at 38 per cent, equal to China and the rest of Asia combined.

According to a presentation by Boeing International’s managing director for Africa, J Miguel Santos, between now and 2034, airlines will need 38 000 new aircraft, valued at $5,6 trillion. By far the bulk of these will be standard single-aisle craft, which will account for 70 per cent. However, small and medium wide-body models will form a significant part of the total, accounting for between them 22 per cent. And who will be buying these planes? According to a Boeing estimate, nearly two out of every five will be destined for Asia. That’s as much as North America and Europe combined.

Despite all that activity, aviation’s contribution to global greenhouse gases is minimal by comparison with terrestrial activities. As at 2010, according to a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, aviation’s share was two per cent. Still, the industry is committed to carbon-neutral growth bu 2020. By 2050, it’s predicted, CO2 emissions will cut to half that of 2005. Boeing’s strategy for reducing emissions rests on three pillars: l More efficient aeroplanes l More efficient flight l Sustainable fuels. The most significant chunk of that, judging by a graphic indicating the company’s strategy, is sustainable fuels. What aviation needs, they say, is a drop-in biofuel that can be blended directly with petroleum jet fuel
and meets or exceeds performance standards of petroleum – with no change to aircraft, engines or fuelling infrastructure.


This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.